The year of our Lord 2022 was a heck of a time to be a fantasy fan—in multiple mediums. While we were all rejoicing over the arrival of long-awaited adaptations like The Wheel of Time, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, and The Sandman on our screens, the shelves at local bookstores were full to bursting with thrilling, magical new titles, in a perfect storm of new release kismet. Delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the publishing industry finally began to truly ease, favorite authors were crossing genres to write in the adult fantasy space, and multiple highly anticipated sequels and series’ conclusions seemed to arrive on what seemed like a monthly basis.
What I’m saying is, there were a lot of incredible fantasy releases in 2022—more than could possibly fit on a single list or that one person could even feasibly get through in a single calendar year. So here’s our attempt to narrow it down a little bit for you—the best fantasy books our team here at Paste Books read this year, which will hopefully have something for everyone.
The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik
Many fantasy fans these days likely have some understandably mixed feelings about stories set in magical boarding schools. After all, rightly or wrongly, most of them still exist in the shadow of the Harry Potter franchise and given everything that has happened in the real world since that fictional one concluded, well. Let’s just say it’s not a surprise that a lot of people have decided to simply read other things. Yet, if there is any series worth dipping your toe pack into this particular subgenre for, it is Naomi Novik’s Scholomance trilogy, a compelling and morally complex saga about a magical school that trains up young witches and wizards by requiring them to fight for their lives from the moment they arrive. Full of monstrous creatures (known as “mals”) constantly trying to eat them alive on their way to class, the students must make uncomfortable, often class-based compromises to live until graduation, as the rich kids with better access to power and weapons take advantage of the less fortunate and the kids who don’t come from established enclaves make all manner of moral trade-offs to survive.
Unlike so many stories that have come before it, there are no easy answers in the series finale The Golden Enclaves. Everyone is complicit to some degree in the damaging choices that have built the world they’re living in and even the happy endings in this story come with bittersweet sacrifices attached. But the tale is full of clever twists and meaningful resolutions to almost every major character’s arc, some that pay off groundwork laid hundreds of pages prior. Most importantly, this final installment ultimately embraces a larger message of hope and resilience, one that says there’s nothing we’ve done that’s so bad we can’t fix it—if we all simply choose to find a better way together and refuse to give up on each other. I’m not sure that there’s a more appropriate moment to put that kind of call to action out in the world than right now. It’s a rich, fully satisfying conclusion that makes the whole trilogy stronger and more meaningful in retrospect. —-Lacy Baugher Milas
Crescent City: House of Sky and Breath by Sarah J. Maas
While the first installment in Sarah J. Maas’s adult fantasy series Crescent City, House of Earth and Blood, spent a lot of time introducing us to the sprawling world of Midgard and the variety of beings—from humans and shapeshifters to mer folk, angels, and witches—-that inhabit it, the story was still primarily concerned with Bryce Quinlan, a half-human, half-Fae young woman whose determination to solve the brutal murder of her best friend drove much of the story. In sequel House of Sky and Breath, Bryce finds herself plunged deeper into the history and politics of Midgard and the series’ world expands by an order of magnitude as a result.
While Bryce remains a generally delightful heroine, the novel gradually unspools a much larger and more intricate tale than the adventures of a college grad and her friends, largely focused on the brewing rebellion against the god-like beings known as the Asteri (who claim to possess the power of the stars). Its sprawling scope encompasses nearly a dozen main characters, with multiple romances and competing narrative threads, and its story is so complicated there are moments where it feels like the novel’s eight-hundred-plus-page count isn’t quite long enough.
That said, every flaw in House of Sky and Breath will likely be erased by the book’s ending, the sort of gutsy, inevitably controversial storytelling twist that is either going to make fans utterly ecstatic or mildly furious. How the events of this book’s final fifteen pages—which are maddening and exhilarating and nothing that anyone likely expected—will play out in Maas’ subsequent books to come is anyone’s guess. But what a ride we’re in for. —Lacy Baugher Milas
Babel by R.F. Kuang A book that’s about the magic of language as much as it is literal magic, Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of Oxford Translators’ Revolution is a tremendous effort—a meticulously researched period piece, a primal scream from the traditionally unheard, and a story of friendship gone horribly wrong. But its determination to make sure its ambitious (and admittedly extremely important) message about the dangers of colonization, racism, and empire is heard by its audience means that a significant chunk of this doorstopper’s 500+ pages feels didactic and lecture-y, rather than fully transformative
To be clear, Babel is an incredible feat of writing and absolutely the most ambitious fantasy novel you’ll read this year. It’s a book with plenty of flaws, but its obvious depth of research, lovely prose, fascinating linguistic-based magical system, and utter dedication to giving voice to sorts of topics we rarely see tackled at this level of depth in this genre make it a book that’s worth your time. It’s not a perfect story—but as you’ll learn within these pages, almost nothing is—but author R.F. Kuang absolutely gets an A for effort. —Lacy Baugher Milas
The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope
There may not be a better setting for a heist novel than the Roaring 20s. In the Prohibition Era, the United States was full of gangsters and speakeasies—and, if looked at through a fantasy lens, undoubtedly magic. The Monsters We Defy takes that setting one step deeper, blending gangsters with the vibrant African American arts scene of the era.
Leslye Penelope sets her story in 1920s Washington D.C., an era of thriving creativity within the African American community. While racial injustice is never far distant from the story, that’s not the point of the story. It’s the idea of building community—and the power of that same community to help a person know exactly who they are—that drives the book’s larger narrative forward. A heist is central to the plot, but the objective isn’t wealth or glory; by the end, the goal is saving the people who are in the thick of this world with them, facing the same prejudice and discrimination, no matter how rich or poor.
Brightly painted with hues and shades of magic, set against a backdrop of jazz music and drag balls, Penelope has taken a specific historical place and moment and made them feel vibrantly alive. She expertly weaves threads of folklore, mythology, and Bible stories into the tapestry of the setting, creating a texture that ties the story to this world and its history while allowing the fantastic to breathe and flow. —Alana Joli Abbot
Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher
T. Kingfisher is the penname of children’s author Ursula Vernon, and it seems easy enough to see why she might want to keep the two lanes of her work from crossing over too much. Her fantasy books are shot through with both sharp humor and uncomfortable threads of pitch-black realness, dealing with issues that range from emotional trauma and domestic violence to standard folklore pacts and seemingly impossible quests. And this is also true of her 2022 novel, Nettle and Bone, a bittersweet, razor-sharp, utterly perfect sort-of fairytale that clocks in at less than three hundred pages and packs the emotional punch of an epic three times its length.
From its ragtag group of heroes—which includes witches, demons, and resurrected bone animals—to its unflinchingly honest representation of the abuse and misogyny that makes much of its traditionally framed fantasy world go round, there’s a specifically wonderful alchemy at work in T. Kingfisher’s Nettle and Bone that threads the thin line between humor, horror, and heart in order to create something that feels both fresh and utterly necessary. (This is the only book that has an entry on multiple Paste Books “Best of the Year” lists—and there’s a reason for that.) A true delight from the first page to the last, it’s a deeply feminist, fiercely funny fairytale that delightful and unexpectedly subverts so many of the tropes we typically see in stories like it.—Lacy Baugher Milas
The Oleander Sword by Tasha Suri Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne was one of the best fantasy releases to hit shelves in 2021, a doorstopper of a series opener that immediately set up her Burning Kingdoms trilogy as one to keep an eye on in the fantasy genre space. Set in a fully realized magical world inspired by ancient India, its sprawling, complex story features half a dozen major POV characters and multiple distinct kingdoms with their own clearly defined cultural histories, political hierarchy, and religious practices.
Thanks to the thorough world-building that takes place in Jasmine Throne, sequel The Oleander Sword is able to hit the ground running, weaving together the battle for the fate of a kingdom, the future of the series’ central relationship, and the threat of an encroaching magical disease known as the rot into something truly epic in scope. Wrestling with issues of theology, politics, magic, family, and love, this is a sequel that takes everything you loved about the first book in the series and cranks it up to eleven before essentially smashing it on the ground while you watch. Though its ending is the emotional equivalent of a knife to the heart for almost every major character, it’s hard to see how things could have gone any other way. (Which is part of the reason this book is so great.) It’s going to be a long wait for the trilogy’s third installment.—Lacy Baugher Milas
The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen
Though it contains some subtle homages to rom-comes of yore, Megan Bannen’s adult debut The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy is wholly unique, with an imagined setting that will hook you in from page one and keep you reading until the catharsis of its ending.
The novel’s greatest strength is found in the relationship at its center. Hart and Mercy have an undeniable connection from the moment they start sharing the text together, and whether they’re sniping or unconsciously admiring each other’s attributes, their building tension is heading in a divinely inevitable direction. More than physical chemistry (although even that is exquisite, both teased and fully realized), the most heartwrenching revelation comes from understanding that these two people are quite lonely, and even though they aren’t initially aware of their true romantic potential, their souls figure it out for them first, reaching across the yawning chasm of misunderstanding that separates them and bringing them together to forge a fulfilled whole. With The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy, Bannen has crafted a fantasy romance that should be on everyone’s radar—a story about love, about loss, and yes, about death, but ultimately about how important it is to live, especially when you find the one person you want to spend that life with most. —Carly Lane
Nona the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb series actively resists easy explanation, a story of impossible loss, love, and grief set in a far-flung universe where necromancers reign in the Nine Houses built on the bones of murdered worlds. Part fantasy, part space opera, and part apocalyptic nightmare, the story follows the swashbuckling adventures of bone mages and flesh adepts, cavaliers, skeleton armies, petty bureaucrats, and even God himself. Muir’s biting, hilarious prose is full of dark subject matter (violent death, creeping body horror, and various bits of effluvia and gore are commonplace) but tons of heart, deftly exploring issues of identity, belonging, love, and family.
But since the Locked Tomb series as a whole frequently defies description, it shouldn’t shock anyone that its latest installment, Nona the Ninth, does too.
A book that wasn’t even supposed to exist in the first place—the bones of this story were originally slated for the first act of the upcoming series finale Alecto the Ninth—Nona is the series’ most personal and human. To be fair, it also contains just as much violence and cruelty as its predecessors. Characters die, get resurrected, and swap bodies just as easily as ever. But where Gideon the Ninth ended in tragedy and Harrow the Ninth was a study in grief, Nona the Ninth feels like something altogether different: A story about life, and maybe even a little bit about hope. —Lacy Baugher Milas
A River Enchanted by Rebecca Ross
The adult fantasy debut from popular YA author Rebecca Ross, A River Enchanted contains many of the same strengths that can be found in her YA writing: Slow-burn love stories and enemies that gradually turn into lovers to reluctant Chosen Ones and family members willing to trade anything for one another. And yet, thanks to her delicately intricate writing, Ross makes these tropes feel fresher than they have any right to be.
A story that mixes fantasy staples with political intrigue and a dash of mystery on top, A River Enchanted is, quite simply enchanting. Set on a vividly imagined, clearly Scottish-inspired island known as Cadence whose people have existed under a curse for centuries—which leaves their land literally torn in two—the story follows two former childhood rivals forced to work together for the betterment of their kingdom and their adventures through a lush, vividly realized world of fairies and elemental spirits. And it’s gorgeous, in every sense of the word. —Lacy Baugher Milas
The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah Though the trappings of The Stardust Thief will be familiar to readers who grew up on some of the most popular retellings of One Thousand and One Nights, Chelsea Abdullah’s debut novel launches an entirely new, deep world with the first lines. “Neither here nor there, but long ago…” begins not just the novel, but each of the tales within, weaving a tapestry of magic and adventure. The first in a planned trilogy, The Stardust Thief follows the tale of Loulie al-Nazari, the Midnight Merchant; her enigmatic jinn companion, Qadir; tragedy-haunted jinn hunter Aisha; and a pair of princes: Omar, the king of the forty thieves and eldest prince, and Mazen, a cloistered younger prince trapped by his royalty, who misses his mother’s stories
It’s hard to believe that Abdullah, an American-Kuwaiti writer who grew up on some of the traditional tales she embellishes, is a debut writer. The prose is polished, the world rich with depth, and the characterizations endearing. With lies and secrets, she lulls her readers in with a story that feels familiar, simultaneously crafting a tale that undermines expectations. The finale changes the stakes for the series to come, and while it’s not quite a cliffhanger, the last pages are told almost breathlessly. The wait for the second book will be long, with no publication date yet announced, leaving readers to imagine an endless desert filled with ruins and danger—and jinn.—Alana Joli Abbott
Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan
A gorgeously written coming of age story about a young woman’s struggle to free her mother from a magical imprisonment, Daughter of the Moon Goddess is packed with lush descriptions of immortal life and beautiful, intricately rendered settings. Its strong grounding in Chinese mythology and culture makes even the most well worn or expected tropes feel magical and fresh, and its story is nonstop adventure as Xingyin goes on all manner of quests to try and prove herself to the emperor of the Celestial Kingdom.
Throw in some dragons, mer folk, demons, and a love triangle where both sides are (initially at least!) compelling options for our heroine, and you can’t ask for much more in a story like this. Bonus points, the book’s sequel, Heart of the Sun Warrior also hit shelves in November of this year, meaning you can read this entire magical duology right now. — Lacy Baugher Milas
For the Throne by Hannah Whitten
Hannah Whitten’s debut For the Wolf was one of the best fantasy novels of 2021: Part folklore, part horror story, and part fairytale that mixed elements from “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Snow White” into something that felt fresh and new despite its deeply familiar bones. In its sequel For the Throne, Whitten crafts a thrilling finale, with bigger stakes, more sweeping emotions, and more dramatic twists than its predecessor, all ultimately grounded in the complicated, but unshakeable bond between two sisters and the world they may or may not be destined to save.
But where For the Wolf focused primarily on Redarys’s journey into the Wilderwood and her slow-burn love story with Eammon, the titular Wolf of the forest, For the Throne follows the story of her sister Neve’s journey through the Shadowlands, the dark inversion of the golden magical forest above and a terrifying place populated by bones, dying gods, and the villainous Five Kings, semi-immortal murderous despots who long return to the real world and reclaim their powers. A beautifully balanced tale of love in many forms, For the Throne is not just a satisfying conclusion to the story that began in For the Wolf, but a bittersweet reminder that in real stories, happily ever after doesn’t exist, and it’s up to us to muddle through the best we can and try to make a future with the people we love. —Lacy Baugher Milas
Book of Night by Holly Black Book of Night may be Black’s first adult fantasy novel, but it contains many of the hallmarks that have made her writing so popular for years. There’s a prickly heroine, a twisty plot, and a central relationship that is something other than what it initially appears to be. But something about the contemporary, urban setting seems to free something in Black’s writing, allowing her to really dig into a story that is, at its heart, about trauma. From absentee parents and child abuse to toxic living situations and a magical system that involves no small amount of bodily mutilation, this is her messiest, most complicated book yet.
Black has spoken before about the ways that shifting to writing an adult novel has allowed her to explore more complex sorts of issues, such as the stagnation of adulthood and the ways we’re less able to adapt and change as we get older than perhaps we once were. And that’s honestly a big part of the reason why young con woman Charlie feels so relatable as a heroine. Because even though you (probably?) can’t magically control your shadow, well, who among us hasn’t wondered what we were doing with our lives? Or questioned whether we were failing at this whole adulting thing? And while the story isn’t perfect—it drags in more than a few places, and doesn’t fully explain the hierarchy and rules of shadow magic as well as some readers would likely prefer—it’s an exciting introduction to a new world of seemingly limitless possibility. And a story that feels like it could go anywhere.—Lacy Baugher Milas